'How we've proved people do want to 'take kids to a nature reserve'
PUBLISHED: 10:56 18 May 2019 | UPDATED: 14:26 18 May 2019
'I wouldn't take my kids to a nature reserve' - those hollow words once spoken to this couple have driven them to make a success out of Pensthorpe Natural Park, near Fakenham, to prove the doubters wrong.
Without really intending it, Bill and Deb Jordan became the owners of what was originally just a bird reserve and over the last 16 years have created a successful business which is a tourist attraction, while forging ahead with conservation projects too. And yes, kids now do want to come.
Married for 33 years, Bill and Deb live on the 700 acre site and literally live and breathe it. Deb walks around the park with their dog Marnie first thing in the morning and last thing at night, not at peace but searching for anything that needs attention from a gate off its hinges to a faded sign. She takes snaps on her phone of the problems so they can be fixed promptly.
She said: "I don't ever take Pensthorpe for granted, I always feel there is a huge responsibility which sometimes weighs me down and that will probably never alter. I'm thinking: have we got it as good as it could be? How can we get more people here? How can we can secure all this for future generations to come?
"It does sound corny but on my walks in the reserve, I find it really easy to connect to such beautiful surroundings. Nature has a great habit of pulling you firmly into the moment. An oystercatcher peeping, a squirrel darting along a branch, a skylark singing overhead. Some would call this mindfulness. I feel passionate about how nature can improve health and promote well-being and it sounds as though doctors are now keen to support what is also described as the 'green prescription.'
"Nature allows you to calm down, have less stress, focus on the beauty of things and I'm incredibly lucky to live here."
Deb and Bill were destined to be together; she was a glamorous former model and worked for a London fashion house, he a dashing 'confirmed bachelor,' nine years older, who made his fortune from creating Jordan's cereal bars. But after they kept meeting at various parties, he did 'the most romantic thing in his life' when he proposed whilst island hopping in a small plane in the Bahamas.
When, in 2003, they bought Pensthorpe, a bird sanctuary which was closed for much of the year, they suddenly were thrown together spearheading a business. "I'd never had a boss for 30 years," smiled Bill. "Suddenly I acquired one, I was subjugated." "He is being rude about me," added Deb.
They took over the venue, which was closed from December to Easter, with just four ladies sharing the shop rotas, two wardens and a small team in the cafe - and have grown it to a year-round attraction employing up to 70 people.
"We hadn't expected to be bosses," said Deb. "We expected to come and live here and be part of the team in a much smaller capacity with another family taking a lead role on management. Bill was going to be part of the farm and I was going to help run the shop and cafe. However things changed dramatically and we found ourselves on our own, it turned out to be a huge learning curve. I still hadn't expected that we would buy it but I was being pulled into the web."
Bill was motivated by the farming opportunities at Pensthorpe as well as the conservation; he's hugely proud of being involved in captive breeding programmes involving endangered species like corncrakes, cranes and turtle doves.
Deb uses her eye for detail and creativity to continually improve the offering at Pensthorpe which now boasts venue hire facilities after the refurbishment of some workers' cottages on the site and both drive it forward with their collective vision.
The venue got major exposure back in 2008-10 when the BBC series Springwatch chose to base the programme there but the couple realised they had to grow Pensthorpe and reach a different market.
Deb explained: "At the beginning we imagined that nature and the beauty of the place would attract visitors but it's not enough so over the years we have been diversifying and finding ways of connecting with people who wouldn't normally come."
They decided to expand and offer extensive children's play investing more than £2m into both indoor and outdoor areas, 'Hootz House' and 'Wild Rootz.'
Deb said: "We had quite a lot of unpopular feedback from existing members who said that we had sold our souls down the river but then one day, a grandparent stopped me and said they wanted to apologise, that they got what we were trying to do. That was a very good day."
Like any couple they don't always get on - in fact they argue most about one of the features Pensthorpe is renowned for - the flamingos. Deb is a real fan, Bill is less keen, however they've invested heavily into giving these birds new wetland facilities - and they're hoping to one day have a flamingo chick.
Bill said: "Kids like space, just to be able to get outside and let off steam and it's our job to make it attractive enough. Visitor numbers are good, we've gone from 35,000 to about three times that, having evolved from being an exotic waterfowl collection to what it represents today."
Over the years Bill and Deb have been lucky to develop a really strong team meaning they can start to take slightly more of a back seat and they are concentrating on some different events - such as the Bird and Wildlife Fair today and tomorrow which showcases Norfolk as the 'bird watching capital' of Britain with experts Simon King OBE, Mike Dilgers and Bill Oddie, OBE.
And what's the future? They hope one day their children, currently both working in London, may take an interest in running Pensthorpe. Until then, they have no plans to retire. Bill said: "For me, I'm most proud when I walk through the site on a pleasant day when it's all looking good - the wildflower meadow is starting to come around, migratory birds are back and the gardens are beginning to fill out with new growth."
Deb agrees: "I think perhaps if I am being honest, the first six years were very tough and might have affected the children, I was the mum who was always late.
"My parents died young; Dad from cancer, Mum from Alzheimers. When I look back they would have loved to have been part of it but I have no regrets about buying Pensthorpe, the learning curve has altered us but for the better."
You may also want to watch: